Hibernation mode deactivated

I’m excited—I’m writing a book. Please feel free to join my happy dance. I’ve been writing my book for several months now. Unfortunately, after a burst of energy over the (southern hemisphere summer), ennui sank its fangs into the jugular of my writer’s mojo, and I went back into a slough of inertia, if not outright despond. 

This whole pandemic thing and all the other unthinkable stuff that’s going on around us has challenged me big time. It’s like someone found Pandora’s Box intact, read the cautionary tale about what happens when you open it, but thought it would be a winning idea to open it anyway and see if it’s as bad as legend would have it. Just as an aside, Pandora’s box was, in fact, Pandora’s jar. There’s a long and boring story about Erasmus usign the wrong word when he translated the story from Greek to Latin…zzzzzz. Anyway, box or jar, it was left in Pandora’s care and curiosity drove her to open it. Epic fail! Imagine her face as she watched sickness, death and myriad other evils escape into the world. Even though she shut the box as quickly as she could — well, you would, wouldn’t you? — the only thing she shut back in was hope, surely the one thing humanity needed to survive the others? Eek! You’d have to think Pandora spent the rest of her life in therapy, coming to terms with her guilt.

Anyway, back to me. I don’t think I have felt so much lack of certainty before. Frankly, I’ve been confused in these oh-so-changing and identity-obsessed times. Every time I crank up my computer to start a post, I get bogged down in the deathly dichotomy of doctrinal duality (not to mention laboured alliteration). It’s not that I haven’t had ideas; it’s just that when I start to run with one of them, so many different pathways open up that I quite literally get overwhelmed and can’t decide which to follow. Like Robert Frost, I’d go for the one less travelled, but almost all of them qualify on that count these days. 

For someone who loves to comment, this uncharacteristic state of no comment—haven’t posted a blog at all this year and only a couple last year—is disturbing. There’s been such a one-dimensionality about life. The usual rites of passage have been cancelled or postponed, sometimes more than once. My choir is on it’s fourth attempt to sing the mighty Bach Mass in B Minor. Parties, weddings, funerals, festivals, concerts, celebrations with family and friends, travel and holidays. Many of the things that anchor our lives haven’t happened. Time seems to have folded into itself. Chronological memory has stalled—it’s hard to remember what happened and when it happened because the rhythm of our lives has been messed around so badly. 

However, I had a ‘Damascus moment’ a few weeks ago. I realise I’ve been in mental hibernation. We humans aren’t supposed to be able to hibernate, but I’m walking proof “the science” is wrong on this. Think about it. Hibernation is the thing that animals do to conserve energy so they can survive adverse weather conditions or lack of food. But isn’t hibernation just one great big sleep? Not at all. They’re not all a bunch of lazy fur balls—hibernation isn’t technically sleeping, and hibernating animals ‘wake up’ periodically. Hibernation’s more a state of torpor. The animal’s heartbeat and breathing slow, and their body temperature drops significantly. But they are still capable of some activity, including suckling cubs. Sounds scarily like my last two years, except for the cub suckling bit. Oh, and hibernating bears don’t eat, drink or exercise for around 100 days. I’ll leave you to figure out which of those abstentions apply to my hibernation experience. 

If animals can hibernate to survive stuff like adverse weather, why not me ? I’ve clearly been in a state of torpor avoiding all the crap unleashed by the idiot who re-opened Pandora’s box (or jar). I’ve been in my imaginary leaf and twig-lined den waiting for better times. What? I’ve woken up too soon? Well, even bears can only hibernate for so long. 

In any case, as there is I can do about any of the stuff I’ve been hoping to outlast, I figured it was time to grab some of those lemons life has lobbed in my direction and make some lemonade. It’s time to zoom in on the certainties and consign confusion to outer darkness. So, I’m writing a book about branding for the founders of start-up and early-stage businesses. You may well think this is a giant leap from writing about random shit in this blog, but developing and managing brands is what I do for a living and, after a lot of years plus a fair few cracks at the entrepreneurial life to lace through it all, I have a lot of material. You might say my stash of lemons is a big one. Much tasty lemonade should result. 

OK, I’ll stop labouring the point and move on. But I am excited. It’s going well. Energy is high, optimism is loaded, and the world is again my oyster. Hibernation mode is most definitely deactivated.

Who will COP the flack if our leaders can’t agree?

With Cop26 underway, how do you feel? I’m a bit jittery — it’s so important, and I find myself moving from upbeat optimism to pessimistic defeatism in the space of a nano-second. After all, what are the odds that this Conference of Parties will ultimately achieve more than exhaling a lot of hot air? 

And yet they must, while the rest of us sit it out, holding our collective breath. The alternative is unthinkable. We, humans, are an increasingly fractious and divergent bunch. We squabble over which statues and people to cancel, ‘doing a Nero’ and fiddling while our world burns. Imagine how much worse these divisions will become if we don’t pull our heads in and find the global will to grasp the nettle and get ourselves off the horns of the climate dilemma.

It’s so easy to get disillusioned and question the point of individual action. And yet, every day, so many people and organisations demonstrate that we all can make a difference. We all do what we can as individuals, families, communities. But we need more. We need our global leaders to liberate the genie in the lamp and pull at least one giant rabbit from their magic hats. Where are Harry Potter and his “Expelliarmus” spell when we need them?

Wouldn’t it be nice if some high wizard could just wave their wand, utter the magic words, and hey presto, all the bad stuff like Covid and Climate Change, war, famine, and aggro of any sort are sealed back into the contemporary Pandora’s box we opened through our carelessness. So far, so good though — it does look like there are a few wins coming through. I’m keeping my fingers well crossed that hope triumphs over experience this time.

What if the winner didn’t take it all?

In the middle of last year, I joined SheEO — a global network of “radically generous women building a $1B perpetual fund working on the world’s to-do list.” Basically, we’re a bunch of women who want to invest in making the world, and our prospects within it, a better place by supporting each other and sharing capital, resources and connections to do it. 

Founded in 2015 in Canada, SheEO is now active in four other regions (NZ, US, Australia and UK) with 7,000 investors who have supported 107 ventures with more than $7m of capital. As Canadian founder Vicki Saunders says, “To get to the new solutions for the world’s most pressing social issues; we need to shed our ‘winner takes all culture’ that has resulted in 5 men having the same wealth as half the planet! 51% of the population are women. Yet, we receive 2.2% of the capital. This is statistically impossible without massive bias designed into our systems and structures.”

I love everything about being part of this fantastic network; the shared spirit of radical generosity; the scope of the founders’ vision; the wide variety of women involved – all ages, races and cultures are welcome; the feeling of being part of something that is making things happen, not just a gabfest. I’ve been a member of a fair few networks in my lifetime, but never one that has so wholly fulfilled its promise. We are genuinely a community of support where people with something to give offer it, and people who need something feel free to ask. 

I’m what’s known as an “Activator”. Activators invest a fixed amount each year which goes into our own region’s pool of money. This pool supports emerging female entrepreneurs launching or growing businesses that create the socially and environmentally sustainable models of the future. Selected entrepreneurs receive 0% loans. Repaid loans — to date, there has been a 95%  repayment rate — are paid forward, augmenting the available pool of money. Funded businesses get coaching and development support. Most of all, they get access to a global community of women who support them as customers, advisors, connectors and fans. 

What’s great is that everything is on our terms. You can be as involved as you want to be. Ventures are free to build their companies according to their values. Activators support when and how they can, including being involved in selecting companies receiving loans. Everyone commits to showing up with radical generosity to bring out the best in each other.

I just saw the breakdown of ages of the entrepreneurs in my New Zealand region who have received funding and was thrilled to see nearly 28% of them are women over 50. It’s heartwarming to see increasing numbers of women shrugging off the cloak of invisibility that age seems to drape over our shoulders, leaving us marginalised and without a voice. I co-founded a tech start-up at 51 and cannot for the life of me see why more of us don’t give it a go. For sure, it’s risky and exhausting, but also exhilarating and most definitely character building. As George Eliot so famously said, “it’s never too late to be who you might have been.”

Not everyone is cut out to take this sort of leap, particularly at a life stage when the prudent are squirrelling away maximum quantities of nutritious nuts to see them through their retirement season. But the world is changing rapidly, and establishing a business for good is one way to make your mark on how the changes roll out. Unlike so many things these days, I believe this is binary: we change for good or bad. The choice is ours — by embracing radical generosity and supporting the people who can and want to make it a change for good, we can get beyond all the inequities that exist. With a spirit of radical generosity, we can cut across tribal boundaries, hates and discriminatory mindsets and ignore the fake news and conspiracies.With radical generosity as a philosophy, they become irrelevant and we can break the winner-takes-it-all model. With radical generosity, we can stop fixating on past mistakes and concentrate on building bridges, negotiating with each other kindly and creating meaningful communities of mutual support with a shared vision of the world we want to see. 

Thanks to Saba.com for the header image.

The surprising seductiveness of slow

I nearly wrote a letter last weekend. What? Yes … an honest to God, old fashioned paper-based communication intended for distribution by snail. In the event, I didn’t. The digital habits of a fair chunk of my lifetime got in the way and I sent an email instead.

The impulse was triggered by reading that a lot of teenagers, missing their mates during the lockdown, re-discovered the joy of sending and receiving hand-written notes. In the isolation of their homes, apparently many found letters to be more intimate and emotionally connecting than texting, ‘social’ media posting and similar. Thinking about it unlocked the ghost of letters past that’s clearly still lurking inside me, and the memory of how much I used to enjoy getting mail. This chain reaction concluded in my close encounter with a blank page. 

The article transported me back to the heart-lifting discovery of a hand-written letter nestling seductively in one’s letterbox. Then the ritual of finding the right place to read it; a secluded place under a tree, curled up in a big squishy chair in front of a roaring fire, or even a sweet scented, candlelit bath. The setting depended on the relationship with the sender — family, friend, lover, admirer — and the season. There was always that gorgeous moment of holding back, of prolonging the anticipation before finally ripping into the letter. Often there would be a quick scan of the contents for anything scary or sensational, before settling into a leisurely read through.

Good letters take time to craft. The best are intimate and personal. From soul to soul. As the words gather momentum they open avenues to the unburdening of our hopes and fears, loves and hates, joys and sorrows and the feeling of connection as we share the minutiae of our days. There’s something about the flow of a pen over paper that is missing altogether from keyboard bashing. Lacking a delete button, there was a need for precision and coherence of thought. Although the growing pile of screwed up paper as errors or uncertain confidences were cast aside spoke volumes on that score. There was an almost hedonistic pleasure in the first the first stroke of a fountain pen on a blank sheet of high quality paper. Or the challenge of writing in tiny letters to pack as much as possible onto those impossibly small pre-paid airmail letters that you folded up and licked the tabs on the edge which stuck it all together. You were lucky if you managed to do this without acquiring a paper cut on your tongue. ‘Nanny state’ would probably have something to say about that these days.

Sorry planet — I know how wasteful and unnecessary this feels now in this device-laden era where resources are diminishing as fast as pack ice in the Arctic and the tyranny of air miles is never far from our minds. But email just doesn’t hack it as a substitute for a neatly tied bundle of letters from a loved one or a box full of the most memorable greetings cards. I still have swags of each. Even if you print emails, they just don’t have the same bang for buck. 

I’m a bit worn out by life in the ‘fast lane’. Living through the lockdown has seemingly awakened a sleeping dragon in many of us — the surprising seductiveness of slow. A nostalgia for bygone pleasures: the allure of a trip to a library; being literally lost in a good book; sitting down with friends and family over a leisurely and carefully crafted meal rather than shovelling in some hastily acquired takeaway or ‘dashboard dining’ option. Most of all, there’s all too little of the ultimate luxury; reflective time, something that is considered to be essential to our health and wellbeing.

This morning, I woke up with the poem Leisure by W H Davies rattling around in my head. Although I learned this ‘by heart’ at primary school, it’s meaning pretty much passed me by as a ten-year-old, but it resonates strongly now. I’m sure my teacher would have been highly gratified! The poem was published in 1911. In the opening lines, the poet asks, “What is this life, if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare?” The thrust of the poem is that the hectic pace of modern life has a detrimental effect on the human spirit because there’s no time to appreciate the glory of the natural world around us. (Read Poem).

Willian Henry Davies was a Welsh poet and writer who grew up in a highly dysfunctional (though not poor), family. He dropped out and spent a significant part of his early life as a homeless drifter on both sides of the Atlantic. The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp, published in 1908, is about Davies’ life in the US between 1893 and 1899. Apparently, he crossed the Atlantic at least seven times during this period, working his passage on cattle ships, then travelling through many of the states, sometimes begging, sometimes taking seasonal work, often spending any savings on drinking binges with fellow travellers. They didn’t teach us this in school by the way — we might have paid more attention if we’d know a bit more about his colourful life. It would likely have seemed pretty romantic to the impressionable kids we were. Davies became one of the most popular poets of his time by drawing on his observations about life’s hardships, the ways in which the human condition is reflected in nature, his tramping adventures and the characters he met. 

It has to be said, I lust after ‘slow’ until I remember what life was like without the convenience of Google as an information source, without which Mr. Davies would have remained an enigma to me. In all seriousness, I wouldn’t go back to the pre-Internet/digital era. There’s just too much that is genuinely better about now. But I do hope that we can hold on to some of the specialness of slow as we move on through this pandemic. To have time to see and enjoy the moment, to revel in our lives and in nature and the endless possibilities on offer. To take the time to share our dreams and disappointments with loved ones by whatever means are to hand, snail or otherwise. To have the luxury to simply stand and stare and understand how infinitely precious it all is … and how easily lost.

May we not live in interesting times

I’m sure you know the expression “may you live in interesting times”. This is sometimes referred to as ‘the Chinese Curse’. On the surface, it seems to be a positive wish, it’s typically used ironically with the “interesting” bit referring to moments when there is disorder and conflict rather than peace and stability. I should point out here that the cultural appropriation appears to be … er … not cultural … as there is apparently no known equivalent translation in Chinese.

Anyway, I’d say we’re certainly living in interesting times. In fact, you could likely put up an argument these are the most interesting times ever. In the proverbial sense, it doesn’t get much more interesting than the prospect of cataclysmic climate change that we’re facing, not to mention the seismic shifts going on in politics around the world.

In this sense, my last couple of months could also be described as “interesting”. I’ve been to three conferences focussed on sustainability and social justice issues, joined 40,000 others who marched to our Parliament building in Wellington’s Climate Strike, learned a useful new word,  Zweckpessimismus, and sung in a big production of Carl Orff’s immortal and highly bawdy Carmina Burana. You might struggle to see the connections, but ‘bear with’ …

With the exception of singing Carmina, which was tremendous, the common denominator linking the other threads was how easy it would be to get cynical and lose hope in the face of all the issues. For sure, the various conferences dished up some inspiring instances of people who clearly give a lot of damns doing amazing things, they also underscored a few home truths. While a lot of it was stuff I already knew, such as the awful state of our oceans with all that plastic choking the life out of everything in them and the shame of places like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, it’s still shocking to listen to researchers who’ve seen these horrors up close and personal and measured the impact. I knew it was bad, but the scale is staggering. And that’s just the oceans!

I was a bit depressed at the end of this run of events, wondering if it really is possible for us to get the lid back on the Pandora’s Box we’ve opened. Wondering why so many people are still in denial that it actually exists, let alone has been opened? Then I came across the concept of Zweckpessimismus which helped me understand why so many of us seem transfixed like  deer in the headlights, unable to pull their heads out of the sand.

Zweckpessimismus is one of those complicated German compounds which translates as something like pessimism on purpose. In other words, the attitude of expecting the worst in order to feel relief when the worst doesn’t happen. This is undoubtedly one way of coping in a very uncertain world, but it seems like the sort of self-fulfilling prophecy that we should avoid like the plague.  Surely, we should be going hard out for the opposite — what can go right will go right?

Zweckpessimists, with their doomsday thinking are actually dangerous in these super-intersting times when we need hope and optimism above everything else. While it might be a wonderful feeling when you have expected the worst and it doesn’t happen, it is pushing out a form of negative energy that infects others with alarm and fear. Instead, let’s pool all the good vibes we can call forth to create an unstoppable wave of positivity to inspire our Simian ingenuity and creativity to find solutions. Perhaps then, the tipping point we seem to be reaching, will skew in the direction of a world we would like to see. Let’s opt for uninteresting times and be bored in perpetuity by the serenity of global peace and ecological abundance rather than the dystopian alternative that is the other option.

Coming back to performing Carmina Burana. It was a true celebration of what people can achieve in harmony.  Without blowing my own trumpet (both puns intended), it was a great night. Close to 2,000 people — audience and all the performers — left the concert on a high. This high — a palpable energy buzzing around the auditorium connecting us all — stayed with me long after the strains of the music were done. I hope that is true for others who were there. If we could always feel this way, how amazing would our lives be? Imagine the transformation that would follow if every Zweckpessimist out there expected the best instead of the worst. Someone should coin a word for that!

 

Statements of the bleeding obvious #201: Nice doctors really do make a difference!

It’s amazing how many times what’s billed as breakthrough new research really just confirms what we already understand from experience. Stuff like the fact that singing is good for us and can prolong our lives. That dogs and other animals lift the spirits of long-term hospital patients … as well as mostly everyone else. That laughter is infectious. That lovesickness is a genuine state.

OK, so we’re in an era where it’s possible and considered desirable to research esoteric and non-fundamental subjects. I’m cool with that — non-fundamental subjects like these actually make a lot of difference to our daily lives bringing cheer and happiness, often in dark times. So providing evidence that they really do achieve what  we intuitively feel they do is fab … even if the headlines they provoke seem more like statements of the bleeding obvious than radical insights into the  human psyche.

It most definitely is good to know that singing regularly could prolong my life — I do enough of it after all. It’s a bonus to know that, as well as the immediate buzz from   opening your larynx and letting rip, it’s a gift that keeps on giving in the all-of-life context. Also great to know empirically that my love of animals — near obsession it has to be said — is healthy. That bringing animals into hospitals is genuinely therapeutic and can bring comfort to people in pain or despair. Who hasn’t ever listened to a friend break out into a great belly laugh and  been been compelled to laugh too? Laugh and the world laughs with you, cry and you cry alone … so true. And love sickness? Well, it’s been a while since Apollo fired an arrow into my tender  heart and catalysed all the turbulent symptoms I described in an earlier blog You Make Me Sick! But I haven’t forgotten the visceralality of it all — there’s no question in my mind, it’s a lurg just as debilitating as a fluey cold.

At the weekend, I read another about one of these completely unsurprising research findings. Can A Nice Doctor Make Treatments More Effective? Well dear reader, if you were in any doubt on this count, according to new research by Stamford University in the US, having a doctor who is warm and reassuring actually improves your health. REALLY? Who knew? Most of us I would have thought. I found this astonishing non-news in weekly round up of good news from the New York Times. It’s full of great stories and I love it.

Last week comes Romeo the Sehuencas water frog to my inbox. Romeo is a very rare creature. He was thought to be the last of his type. No Juliet to be found anywhere, let alone on ‘yonder balcony’. Day after endless day, sad Romeo croaked out “Juliet, Juliet, wherefore art thou Juliet?” from his home in a Bolivian museum. Actually what he said was, “ribbet, ribbet, ribbet …” but where’s the poetry in that? Cutting to the chase, biologists had pretty much given up their search in the remote and inaccessible areas of Bolivia where said Juliet might have been found. Then behold! There she was. Juliet the miracle frog — a potential mate for our lonesome hero. Being the only two Sequencas water frogs in existence, it was set to be a fine romance and I’d love to be able to say, “and they both lived happily ever after”. But even for a frog with only one possible mate, the chemistry still has to be right. Imagine the pressure! Without mincing words, would you be prepared to shag some random stranger to preserve our species? Fine if it’s George Clooney.  Not so fine if … well, the list is endless. But then again, unlike Romeo, no one I know is faced with the decision to take one for the future of our species and it’s easy to be precious when we’re in no imminent danger of extinction … unless we keep  messing with our natural habitat that is. All joking aside, a lot is riding on our precious frog prince. Let’s hope the chemistry is there and they soon start producing copious numbers of wee froglets to perpetrate their froggy line.

But back to nice doctors. Apparently the simple things a doctor says to you can have an impact on your health outcomes. Even a brief reassurance can relieve symptoms faster. The reassurance is more efficacious when it’s said in a kindly manner rather than barked out as a “you’ll be fine” afterthought when you leave the surgery. You can’t quite get away from the fact that the doctor has to be skilled and competent as well as nice. However, most of us have been on the receiving end of one of those grumpy types whose you mistake me for someone who cares demeanour is more likely to cause you to lose the will to live altogether than get well. Their cool indifference renders you as articulate as … well .. a frog .. when you try to describe the pain that was giving you hell until it magically disappeared nano-seconds after you made the appointment..

Anyway, the conclusion of the research was that doctors who don’t connect with their patients my risk undermining a treatment’s success. Apparently doctor-patient rapport is much more than the sum of it’s feel good parts. It’s a important aspect of medical care that significantly affects a patient’s physical health. Are you kidding me? It really does feel like a statement of the bleeding obvious that someone who is kind and sympathetic as well as good at their job is likely to achieve a better result.

The article ended by questioning what this means in the brave new world of artificial intelligence. AI opens the possibility of not having to go to the doctor for minor health issues. If interacting with a human being and hearing words of encouragement is part of the cure, this begs the wider question of whether our increasing isolation is actively bad for our health. As the opportunities and need for actually connecting with a fellow human in many aspects of our lives become progressively fewer, what collateral damage are we setting ourselves up for. Romeo the frog couldn’t help his plight. We can, and yet we continue to write people out of the script of our lives. When us humans humans actually get together face-to-face is, we open up the possibility for  laughter and  love. For conviviality and banter. We get to share the good and help each other through the bad times. You don’t need to be a Stamford luminary  to recognise that gentle and kind connections with other people — Doctors and the rest — are seriously good for our health and unkind, cruel ones are not. Comforting to know this is now “proven by scientists”.